Ep. 064: Little Pilgrimages in Edo-Tokyo

Dashing around Tokyo's shorter circuits

In early August of 2004, I returned to Japan (from my then-new home in China) for half a month and completed a number of smaller pilgrimages, all inside the Tokyo city limits. These were mostly small suburban temples, though a few--such as Senso-ji in Asakusa (see Episode 061)--are quite large. Likewise, some were sizable in the old days, but are now mere shadows of their former selves. I have no information on the history of these pilgrimages (and little on the temples themselves) beyond these lists. Nevertheless, I found some real gems among them.

Come along and investigate some of them with me in this episode of--


My Approach

Dang, what a mess! See it live here, where you can turn various routes on and off by clicking the boxes on the left.

I didn't do any of these pilgrimages in anything like the order indicated. Instead, I got out a map book and marked every temple from each pilgrimage on it. I then covered them all in geographical order--that is, on a particular day (ten days in all), I saw a group of temples that were near each other, regardless of which route they belonged to. (In a few cases, a single temple might belong to two separate routes!) Scroll down to the year 2004 on my Pilgrim's Progress page at TheTempleGuy.org to see how it was done.

I won't bore you with long lists of temples here; rather, a link is given to the lists on TheTempleGuy.org. Here I will just give background on the focus of each pilgrimage, the basics of the course, and perhaps a highlight or two. A link is provided to the lists with the temple's name in kanji (Sino-Japanese characters); the address; a map link; and the date visited.

The Edo 33 Kannon

The Rokkakudo or "Six-Sided Hall" at pretty little Kannon-ji in Setagaya Ward

I have discussed the nature and importance of Japan's Kannon pilgrimages in Episodes 044 and 059. This route, dedicated to the same popular Bodhisattva of Compassion (Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara), is much smaller than those grand courses, being as it is located within Tokyo's city limits.

It starts at the magnificent Senso-ji in Asakusa (again, see Episode 061) and first meanders around the central areas of the city; #6 is in Ueno Park, where the shrine to Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa is located (see Episode 018) and, after one more temple, the route jumps northwest to a cluster of temples in the area of Bunkyo Ward (Temples 8-13 and 23). "Bunkyo" means something like "literary capital," and it has long been a center of culture for Tokyo.

After a stop in Toshima Ward (#14), numbers 15 through 18 are in or near Shinjuku, where I worked for several years. 19 is also westerly, before we move well south for basically the remainder of the course (though #23 is back up in Bunkyo-ku, perhaps due to a relocation).

Very few of these temples are notable in any way; aside from Senso-ji (#1), the Kiyomizu Kannon-do in Ueno Park (#6), and good-sized Zojo-ji (#21)--once the Tokugawa's family temple--I imagine few foreigners have visited any of them, unless they live in the neighborhood.

Nevertheless, each one is pleasing in its own way. I especially remember tiny Kannon-ji (#32) in pretty Setagaya Ward, with its gorgeous little six-sided hall.

The list of temples is here.

The Edo Three Emma-O

A slightly-blurry statue of Emma-O shot through an opening in the door of Zenyo-ji in Toshima Ward, Emma-O Temple #3 (using arbitrary numbers)

It might seem strange at first to see a temple dedicated to Emma-O, the "King of Hell" (Yama in Sanskrit)--a little like a Christian Church dedicated to Satan! But Buddhism, like most Asian thought-systems, is not so either/or about such things. Why not appease this powerful figure, the same as you would any deity with power over life and death?

It is a very small course, with just three temples (I am not sure of the significance of the number three), but they are fairly widely-spread over the city's northwest, in Suginami, Shinjuku, and Toshima Wards. I was only able to see one of the main figures, at Zenyo-ji in Toshima, as the halls were closed--I had to shoot him through a crack in the door!

The list of temples is here.

The Edo Six Amida

An old-looking statue of Amitabha at Saifuku-ji in Kita Ward, Six Amida Temple #1

Amida is, of course, Japanese for the Amitabha Buddha (Chinese Amituofo), who presides over the Western Pure Land and whom we met in Episode 063 (among many others). He is the most popular Buddha in East Asia--more popular than the original Buddha himself. Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva (Kannon in Japan, Guanyin in China) is an emanation of this Buddha, and usually bears an image of him in his/her tiara.

I am not sure why the number six is associated with him (there are numerous Roku Amida or "Six Amitabha" pilgrimages in Japan) except, perhaps, because his Pure Land is divided into six realms, as is this world (see "Six Jizo" below). Numbered only for convenience, the temples are mainly located north of the city's center, though one is directly east.

It seems that the pilgrimage is most appropriately completed at higan, the Japanese Buddhist celebration of both the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. The word higan means "other shore," another meaning of the Sanskrit word paramita.

The list of temples is here.

The Edo Goshiki Fudo

A Fudo (achala) figure at Five Fudo Temple #2, Jigen-ji in Toshima Ward, home of the Mejiro (White Eyes) Fudo

Every Tokyo resident knows Meguro Ward and the Mejiro District. But Japanese people (let alone gaijin--foreigners) are as unlikely to stop and think of the meaning of the place names as we are to think of "New York" as being "new," or "Houston" as being a person.

They in fact mean "black eye" and "white eye," and are named for two of the five figures known as the goshiki (five-color) fudo. These are five fearsome figures depicted with various eye colors: in addition to the two mentioned, there's a blue-eyed (Meao), red-eyed (Meaka), and yellow-eyed (Meki) Fudo.

In fact, there are three sites for these last, as a result of perhaps of the destruction or move of a temple, or due to some sort of competitive streak in the temple operators. I went to all three. But you could hit all five colors--neglecting two yellow alternates to the east--by tracing a zig-zag north-south line slightly to the west of the city center, from Kita Ward in the north to Meguro in the south.

Are their eyes really different colors? I couldn't say, as I never got close enough to one to find out (though I doubt it). The colors are essentially a "rainbow" in traditional Buddhist thought, though sometimes colors are substituted (green for blue, etc.). Fudo is a protector of the Dharma (the Buddha's teaching) whose Sanskrit name Achala means the same as in Japanese (and Chinese): "immovable."

The list of temples is here.

The Edo Six Jizo

One of six unique Jizo statues protecting the historic roads out of Edo, this one at Touzen-ji on the Oshu Kaido going north to Fukushima

Jizo is Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva who vowed to save all beings from Hell. As there are six realms of existence, so there are six levels of hell; Jizo will save the beings in all of them. He is often seen carrying a staff with six jangly rings on it, or is depicted in multiples of six.

But, as with many Christian saints, this Bodhisattva, second only to Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) in popularity, is patron of many other people besides those in hell. He is also, as we saw in Episode 012, Protector of Children. And here we see him as Protector of Travelers.

In this guise, a large bronze statue of the sweet-faced Jizo--each one unique--sits in front of each of six temples looking down on six historic roads leading out of Edo (Tokyo). The highways, their destinations, and the temples are:

  • The Tokaido, the sea road going south and west to Kyoto; Honsen-ji in Shinagawa Ward (I stopped here on my walk down the Old Tokaido; see Episode 036)

  • The Oshu Kaido, going north to Fukushima; Touzen-ji in Taito Ward

  • The Koshu Kaido, going west to Yamanashi; Taiso-ji in Shinjuku Ward

  • The Nakasendo, the mountain route going southwest to Kyoto; Shinsho-ji in Toshima Ward

  • The Mito Kaido, going to Mito, Ibaraki; Reigan-ji in Koto Ward

  • The Chiba Kaido, going east and southeast to Chiba City; Eitai-ji also in Koto Ward

The list of temples is here.

The Tokyo Ten Shinto Shrines

A torii gate, like the one at Kameido Tenjinja in Koto Ward, is the unmistakable sign of a Shinto shrine.

To my knowledge, there is no tradition of pilgrimage circuits in Shinto (though certainly there were pilgrimages to individual shrines). Nevertheless, ten shrines--mostly large, well-known ones--have been assembled into a pilgrimage in imitation of the Buddhist routes. They are mainly scattered in a line from Hakusan Jinja in Bunkyo Ward to Shinagawa Jinja (oddly, in Shinagawa Ward), though two--Kameido Tenjinja and Tomioka Hachimangu--are more easterly.

Visiting a shrine is far different from visiting a temple. Shinto, meaning "way of the gods," is the indigenous religion of Japan, recognizing the powers of place and nature throughout the land. (The Emperor's family is believed to be descended from Amaterasu, the sun goddess.) Compared to the complexity of Buddhist ideas imported from India by way of China, Shinto has little or no "theology."

Shrines tend to be spacious; their buildings seem to take a smaller percentage of the footprint than in Buddhist temples, and there is little statuary. They are often oases of trees and gardens in a busy city scene.

The list of shrines is here.

The Yanaka Seven Fukujin

I bought this hand-colored certificate and had stamps placed on it as I trudged from one "Lucky God" temple to another in an old neighborhood of Tokyo.

This pilgrimage was not undertaken in my "mad dash" in August of 2004. In fact, my records seem to indicate that I did this on June 7, 1998. The problem is, the course is only supposed to be open on the first ten days of January, as a New Year tradition. Did I do it in January, and come back to take pictures--clearly marked by the camera--in June? The mystery remains... In either case, it was actually the first "pilgrimage" I completed in Japan!

Anyway, these seven "gods," many of them imported from India or China, are immensely popular. The route is a pleasant two-hour walk through a gorgeous old neighborhood that is furukusai ("stinking of age"). It's highly recommended for anyone who is in Tokyo at the right time. (January? June? Ay...) Don't forget to buy you "passport" and have it stamped, as I did.

I have written much more about these figures (and this course) in Episode 024. Take a look!

The list of temples is here.


Well, that's that. Exhausted? I am!

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


Friends, it has been literally months since anyone has engaged in answering the questions. To help lighten my load a little, I will be foregoing this feature until such time as my public clamors for it! Thanks.


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In the next episode: It's Photo Essay Friday, and this will be a good one: a visit to not just one, but TWO sets of grottoes near Dazu in Chongqing. You don't want to miss this one!